Sunday, 30 October 2011

A Dreadful Start To Olympique Marseilles’ Season – Who Could Have Phocéen This Coming?

In his debut article for The Football Front, Andrew Swan discusses Marseilles struggles this season.

The start of the 2011-2012 season has seen Olympique Marseille make a meagre start to Ligue 1, registering a mere 3 victories after 12 games. All of which have come against newly promoted opposition.

The lack of wins, coupled with an inability to hold onto a lead means that Marseille, Les Phocéens, currently sit 9th in the league standings, already 14 points behind high-flying, high-spending Paris Saint Germain.

OM’s start to the season has severely dented their hopes of reclaiming their Ligue 1 crown from Lille. Strangely, however in the Champions League, Marseille have managed to fair a little better picking up impressive wins away to Olympiakos and an emphatic 3-0 defeat of current German champions Borussia Dortmund at home. Meaning that after 2 match days OM had been the only team in the Champions league to have picked up more points in the competition than in their domestic campaign.

Unfortunately, Aaron Ramsey’s last minute winner against Marseille for Arsenal seemed to be the tipping point for a number of the Marseille fans, with fighting breaking out between fans and stewards as banners calling for manager Didier Deschamps to be sacked were attempted to be unveiled.

Things haven’t always been this bad for l’OM, having undertaken something of a recent resurgence under manger and former player Didier Deschamps. After taking on the managers role at the beginning of the 2009/10 season, Deschamps led Marseille to their first league title in 18 years, as well as the Coupe de la Ligue (League Cup) and Trophee des Champions (akin to Charity Shield). Add in the fact that Deschamps is an ex-Marseille player and French World Cup winner. It would be hard to imagine Déde not being well liked as a manger.

Deschamps ensured Marseille splashed the cash and brought in some excellent players during his time at the club. He signed the likes of Lucho Gonzalez, Fernando Morientes and Gabriel Heinze. But Deschamps also had to work under stricter and more realistic financial constraints in recent times in which players had to be moved on before replacements could be purchased. Even with these constraints Déde had managed to put together a rather solid looking squad ahead of the 2011/12 season. The team had a number of internationals and Ligue 1 proven players ensuring that OM were many people’s favourites to win Le Championat for the second time in three seasons.

In July 2009 just as Deschamps was beginning his managerial time with OM, their owner, Robert Louis-Dreyfus died after a long battle with leukaemia. The death was hard to take for many involved with Marseille and the fans alike, with Louis-Dreyfus being viewed by many as the man who helped bring Marseille back to the top, after taking control in 1998. Louis-Dreyfus helped support the club financially, ensuring backing was available for his managers and when his widowed wife, Margarita Louis-Dreyfus took over responsibilities she supported the club in much the same manner. After her first season overseeing Marseille, OM had won the league and cup, and looked set to be in a good position to repeat the feat again the following season.

Unfortunately, due to financial constraints, Deschamps wasn’t able to continue to strengthen his team as much as he would have hoped, and other teams closed the gap, namely, Lille, whose mix of young stars and shrewd signings lead them to their first Ligue 1 title in almost 60 years.

The poor start to this campaign has seen Margarita hit the headlines with her criticism of Marseille, stating publicly ‘I’ve given him (Deschamps) all the money he needs to succeed’ and ominously ‘If I was a true businesswoman, I would have sold the club’. Margarita and Didier have since met and held ‘clear the air’ talks, which should hopefully mean that any comments in the future are kept behind closed doors.

In addition to this misfortune, throughout the disappointing 2010/11 season a number of OM players were subject to home-jacking incidents, with 10 attacks over an 18 month period; this has also meant that Marseille have not only struggled to attract players to the south of France over fears of their own safety, they are also at risk of losing some of their best players who had been victims of the crimes. Players such as Vitorino Hilton, Lucho Gonzalez, Stephane M’Bia, Andre-Pierre Gignac and brothers Andre and Jordan Ayew as well as former club president Jean-Claude Dassier have all been subject to these traumatic and sometimes violent attacks, which has then unsurprisingly led to a drop in form, or in some cases, players having to miss a number of games after the events to overcome the trauma.

Understandably a number of players involved in the home-jacking incidents have sought an exit from the club. Lucho and the Ayew brothers, were the highest profile players, who remained at the club despite interest from other clubs over the summer transfer window. Perhaps due to offers falling short of OM’s valuations it has meant that these players have been left in a state of limbo which in truth benefits neither player nor the club.

Such off-field incidents have clearly left their mark on Lucho, who has failed to produce the kind of performances his €20million price tag would suggest this season. Lucho’s lack of attacking support this season has left the formidable attacking line-up of Mathieu Valbuena, Benoit Cheyrou, Andre Ayew and Loic Remy looking stagnant and void of ideas. OM currently have no one effectively linking up play between defence, midfield and attack.

Something Lucho had been key in orchestrating last season.

The discontent among Marseille players has been evident in performances this season. The team’s lapses in concentration has resulted in Marseille throwing away games from winning positions and gifting the opposition silly goals (Week 2: Auxerre, Week 4: Lille, Week 8: Valenciennes and Week 9: Stade Brest). The culminating effect of these situations has reached the tipping point for some groups of Marseille fans who have chosen to voice their dissatisfaction through banners, for example reading ‘millionaires off the pitch, tramps (down and outs) on the pitch’ and also through a pre-arranged silent protest during the match against AC Ajaccio.

The silence has only added to the rather subdued atmosphere at the Stade Velodrome this season as a result of the renovation work that will see the capacity increased to 67,000 and roofing added to all areas of the ground ahead of the Euro 2016 championships.

Tactically, a recent change in formation from a 4-3-3/4-5-1 to an attack minded 4-4-2, gives the fans some hope that their message is getting across to the manager and players, who surely shouldn’t have needed to be reminded that their performances and results were simply not good enough this season.

Since the last minute defeat to Arsenal in the Champions League, Marseille have gone on to register a 2-0 win against AC Ajaccio in Ligue 1 and a comfortable 4-0 win over Ligue 2 side Racing Club Lens in the Coupe de la Ligue, which possibly represents OM’s best chance of silverware this season and a hard fought 3-2 win away to Dijon FCO. The only sour note to these victories was the very public dispute between Deschamps and OM’s sporting director, Jose Anigo, taking place after the Ajaccio win. The pair have had quite a volatile relationship, often clashing on their opinions on the clubs recruitment policy. However, the club’s hierarchy have urged the pair to focus on the clubs problems rather than their own, and fined Anigo for his comments.

With a 14 point gap between Marseille and league leaders PSG, it already looks like an impossible gap to bridge with the realistic aim of a cup win and solid Champions League run now something to perhaps appease the disgruntled Marseille fans. PSG have invested heavily and attracted some excellent players to Ligue 1 and to Paris, as a result of a huge takeover by the Qatar Sports Investment group. In terms of French football, not well known for its multi-million euro marquee signings, the situation at ‘QSG’ has been likened to that of Manchester City in the Premier League, whereby money is no object. This has seen PSG sign the likes of Kevin Gameiro ahead of Valencia, Javier Pastore from Palermo ahead of a number of top European clubs including Chelsea, and have even been heavily linked with signing David Beckham in the January transfer window.

The surprise success of PSG has shown just how quickly a number of new players can gel together and play excellent football, even against teams who have regularly been at the top of French football in recent years, for example Lyon, whom PSG beat 2-0. The rise of PSG, along with the continued improvement of Lille and return to form of Lyon, would suggest that winning Ligue 1 is now out of Marseille’s own hands. They will need to continue improving performances and crucially eradicating a lack of discipline on the pitch which has left Deschamps with a severely depleted squad through suspensions. The side will also need to continue to grind out results in the hope that the many teams above them slip up and have a substantial drop in form.

In the immediate future, Marseille have a mix of fixtures to concentrate on. Newly promoted Dijon allowed OM to continue to build up confidence and make it 3 wins from 3, ahead of their difficult trip to Arsenal in the Champions League, before struggling Nice visit the Velodrome.

Marseille will then face the difficult double fixtures of visiting Montpellier who currently sit 2nd in Ligue 1 after their tremendous start this season. They then host PSG at the end of November. Indeed, a lot can happen between November and the end of a season.

Meanwhile, Marseille have been drawn away to Caen in the quarter finals of the Coupe de la Ligue, and will hope that they can regain their Champions League form for the last 3 remaining Group F fixtures to progress to the next round.

Let’s hope this bad luck ceases to continue.

Allez l’OM

This article was written by Andrew Swan. You can find more of Andrew’s work on his blog: .Andrew can also be followed on Twitter: @OMarseilleUK.

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